Frodo as Newly Minted PhD

Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins


I’m teaching Fellowship of the Ring at the moment and was amused by this humorous comparison of Frodo’s journey to the PhD process. Much of it is spot on.

Applied mathematician David Pritchard describes Gandalf as a tutor and mentor who persuades Frodo to undertake what at first glance appears to be a very doable project (carry the Ring to Rivendell). Things go downhill from there:

Frodo very quickly encounters the shadowy forces of fear and despair which will haunt the rest of his journey and leave permanent scars on his psyche, but he also makes some useful friends. In particular, he spends an evening down at the pub with Aragorn, who has been wandering the world for many years as Gandalf’s postdoc and becomes his adviser when Gandalf isn’t around.

After Frodo has completed his first project, Gandalf (along with head of department Elrond) proposes that the work should be extended. He assembles a large research group, including visiting students Gimli and Legolas, the foreign postdoc Boromir, and several of Frodo’s own friends from his undergraduate days. Frodo agrees to tackle this larger project, though he has mixed feelings about it. (“‘I will take the Ring,” he said, “although I do not know the way.”)

Very rapidly, things go wrong. First, Gandalf disappears and has no more interaction with Frodo until everything is over. (Frodo assumes his supervisor is dead: in fact, he’s simply found a more interesting topic and is working on that instead.) At his first international conference in Lorien, Frodo is cross-questioned terrifyingly by Galadriel, and betrayed by Boromir, who is anxious to get the credit for the work himself. Frodo cuts himself off from the rest of his team: from now on, he will only discuss his work with Sam, an old friend who doesn’t really understand what it’s all about, but in any case is prepared to give Frodo credit for being rather cleverer than he is. Then he sets out towards Mordor.

The closer Frodo gets to completion, the harder it gets—a very accurate description of the latter stages of dissertation writing:

The last and darkest period of Frodo’s journey clearly represents the writing-up stage, as he struggles towards Mount Doom (submission), finding his burden growing heavier and heavier yet more and more a part of himself; more and more terrified of failure; plagued by the figure of Gollum, the student who carried the Ring before him but never wrote up and still hangs around as a burnt-out, jealous shadow…

The ending of the novel also captures only too well what can happen with newly minted PhDs. Having accomplished his mission—which is to say, having deposited his work in a place where no one will ever see it again (Mt. Doom as dissertation archives)–Frodo stumbles away and discovers that

victory has no value left for him. While his friends return to settling down and finding jobs and starting families, Frodo remains in limbo; finally, along with Gandalf, Elrond and many others, he joins the brain drain across the Western ocean to the new land beyond.

Okay, so that’s a bleak account of the process. I like to think of it rather as a journey of the hero, where young scholars, battling formidable obstacles and inner demons, gain the precious elixir of newfound knowledge and return with it to benefit their society. But I’m more idealist than satirist.

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